Saturday, August 25, 2007

Re-Mystifying the Urban Riverscape

Randy Haluza-DeLay, an outdoor educator, advises on the need to reclaim a sense of mystery about the cityscape. He says:
'To remystify the city is to reawaken a sense of wonder and to alert ourselves to the marvels in familiar things. It is to blur the mental boundaries between Nature and Civilization so that we have an understanding of ourselves and our human-built environments as part of the natural world. ... It is to instill a compassionate sense of place that consciously links care of self and the broader world, both human and non-human. Remystifying the city and connecting to the place we live is a beginning in learning to live with the land.'

Research into people who are environmentally aware and responsible show that environmental concern is related to the level of 'connectivity with nature' (Dutcher, Luloff & Johnson, 2007), as well as to an individual’s ‘emotional affinity’ to the natural world (Kals, Schumacher and Montada, 1999). Indeed, say Dutcher et al (2007:17), 'the literature questions the notion that effective conservation can be ethically grounded solely in the utilitarian appeal of human survival', something that would have been familiar to Maslow (with his pyramid of human needs and concept of self-actualisation).

Connecting to wild places, and pockets of the wild in urban spaces, has a range of powerful and positive benefits including maintains Davis (2004), relaxation, reduction in stress, increase in self-efficacy, increased health and wellbeing, improved self-esteem, where spiritual and psychological experiences are felt as a 'lasting influence', 'intense', 'deeply moving' and 'ego-transcendence'.

Connectivity to river-nature, then, can be seen as an intensely moving, transformative and personal expression of lived spirituality (after Orsi's concept of 'lived religion' - defined as the 'ongoing, dynamic relationship with the realities of everyday life' (1997:7). In fact Durcher et al suggest that nature connectivity may be well be 'an essentially spiritual experience' .

But as this blog river story has shown, in the rapid development that is Brisbane, 2007, nature in terms of habitat and ecosystem services is suffering. And the potential for such lived spiritual experience and for enhanced health and wellbeing is the poorer for this continuing devastation.

Steve Cork from CSIRO's Sustainable Ecosystems suggests that urban dwellers have lost not only places to restore body and mind but also he says, they (is it we?) have a lost an awareness about our reliance on natural ecosystems for food, atmosphere, climate and water, as well as 'for cultural, spiritual and intellectual stimulation and fulfillment'. There is also less access to places where these processes can be re-captivated. And hopefully, they'll be places where biodiversity not housing density is thriving and the scenic beauty of the riverway is held sacred (Hale et al, 2005).

Continuing degradation of the river-vally environment gives rise to what Robert Michael Pyle (1992) calls 'the extinction of experience'.

Perhaps river restoration, better riverbank care, removal of noxious weeds (there are many), and recreation of the wild river trails as well as a sturdy education campaign to accompany these actions might bring a greater awareness of local residents to the inherent spiritual possibilities of river connectivity. The New Zealand poet, Brian Turner, says it like this:

Listening to the River
I think of so and so, a person of many parts, who is drawn to water
and finds rivers speak to him in languages he lives to translate
over and over. Their syllables roll like stones, consonants catch
and tip like slivers of rock flickering in the deeps.
(Lines from Listening to the River, a poem by Brian Turner, cited in Wattchow, 2004)

Dutcher DD, 2007 (forthcoming), ‘Connectivity with Nature as a Measure of Environmental Values,’ Environment and Behavior.
Hale BW, MM Steen-Adams, K Predick, and N Fisher, 2005, 'Ecological Conservation Through Aesthetic Landscape Planing: A Case Study of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, Environmental Management, 35,' 4, 381-395.
Haluza-DeLay R, 1997, Remystifying The City: Reawakening the Sense of Wonder in Our Own Backyards, Green Teacher, 52, Summer.
Davis J, 2004, Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory with Special Reference to Transpersonal Psychology, Naropa University and School of Lost Borders.
Kals E., D, Schumacher & L. Montada, 1999, ‘Emotional Affinity toward Nature as a Motivational Basis to Protect Nature,’ Environment and Behavior, 31, 2, 178-202.
Orsi R, 1997, 'Everyday Miracles; The Study of Lived Religion,' in DD Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
Pyle R M, 1992, 'Intimate Relations and the Extinction of Experience,' Left Bank, 2, 61-69.
Wattchow B, 2004, 'Many Voices Speak The River: Education in an Adventure- River- Landscape,' Educational Insights, 9, 1.


Riverness. This can be defined as the feelings that emerge out of the process of connecting with the river. Engaging with nature is aimed at getting out of our heads and into our senses. To feel kinship with all life. To heal. To learn. To experience. To recharge. To gain a fresh perspective. To build and cement special relationships with ecosystems and places. ‘To be engulfed by wildness and mystery and wonder’ (Baetz, 1997:35; see also the blog by RiverRatRanger). David Cumes (1998:79) remarks that there are no words in English to describe this ‘powerful inner effect on the psyche’, particularly in wild places. He terms it ‘wilderness rapture’.

Certain ‘power places’ are known for their potential to transform through experiences of self-transcendence known as ‘peak experiences’ (Maslow, 1964). These peak experiences or ‘flow’ experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) are chactacterized by feelings of being ‘in the moment’, feelings of unity and oneness, of joy, bliss and peace, outside time and space, a sense of the numinous, a change of heart, and a change of being in the world.

The marvellous wilderness theorist and garlic farmer Robert Greenway (1995:128) promotes wilderness experience as an important pathway for regeneration. His research shows that 90 percent of participants in his wilderness programs over 25 years experience a heightened ‘sense of aliveness, well-being, and energy’ during the sojourn. The difficulty comes at the end of the experience when they return home and begin to lose that loose and open feeling of connectedness with the natural world. Within two days of arriving home, over half the people said their positive feelings had turned to depression. Greenway refers to this fluctuating feeling as the ‘wilderness effect’.

The patches of wild sacred places in the heart of the city are precious. Xavier Rudd in his touching song 'Messages' puts it this way:

So come sit down
Will you talk with me now?
Let me see through your eyes
Where there is so much life
We are biding our time
For these myths to unwind
These changes we will confront

So peace be where
With every place that you had
Look to your soul
For these things that you know
For the trees that we see
Cannot forever breathe
With the changes they will confront

Baetz R, 1997, Wild Communion. Experiencing Peace in Nature, Center City, Minnesota, Hazelden.
Csikszentmihalyi M, 1990, Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper & Row.
Cumes D, 1998, 'Nature as Medicine: The Healing Power of the Wilderness,' Alternative Therapies, 4, 2, 79-86.
Greenway R, 1995, 'The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology,' in T Roszak, M E Gomes & A D Kanner, eds, Ecopsychology.
Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.
Maslow A, 1964, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Columbus, OH, Ohio State University Press.

River Riparian Care

The ecological value of rivers needs to be protected. This is one of the principles of river care developed for the National Rivers Consortium (Phillips, Bennett & Moulton, 2001). Other principles include: the need to manage rivers in an ecologically sustainable manner to maintain biodiversity, natural stream flow, and to ensure the benefits of rivers for future generations. But what is missing? Intrinsic value - the value of the river in its own right, outside of human use.

Stephen Kellert, who along with E. O Wilson developed the biophilia hypothesis, created a useful typology of values about the human relationship with the natural environment. Among the values he lists are - Utilitarian (human/resource use), Aesthetic (scenic beauty), Scientific, Moralistic (spiritual and ethical), Humanistic (love and emotion), Symbolic (communication/myth about nature), Dominionistic (control/power over) and Negativistic (fear and aversion of nature). These values expand the emphasis on the strictly economic approach which allocates a monetary value to places and natural environments. Such a narrow approach overlooks the emotional, social, educational, recreational, spiritual dimensions of nature loving and river connecting. Kellert's values indicate that the natural world has significance beyond the focus of governments, planners, developers, industry.

Surveys on attitudes towards river care have singled out the need for pollution reduction, habitat restoration, improvement of aesthetic and recreational amenity especially in relation to spaces for 'relaxing, walking and enjoying views' (see Cassagrande, 1997:72), and a deep concern about ecologically-unaware development in addition to the all-too-unthinking destruction of natural capital. The range of studies also shows that people are more inclined to connect with the natural environment when it is looked after, where it is beautiful (and wild), and where they can feel a sense of wellbeing and happiness.

This is also the story for people who love the Brisbane River. Joy to the river.

Cassagrande D, 1997, Interdisciplinary Restoration: Values, Perceoptions, and Restoration Goals, Bulletin 100, Centre for Coastal and Watershed Systems, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Phillips N, J Bennett and D. Moulton, 2001, Principles and Tools for Protecting Australian Rivers, Canberra, Land & Water. Australia.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thick Water

The river is very showy today. The water is darker, more mysterious; the sky hangs low over the valley and sheds water in thick sheets. It has been a long time coming. The falling water these past few days has sparked life into the bush; birds are chirping, cheeping, tweeting, and chattering in the trees above, in the long grasses and bushes all around. Patrols of brush turkeys are on the prowl, the male turkeys strutting resplendent in their bright red and yellow neck regalia. This is an island of wild in the heart of the city, a refuge for birds and other persons, only some of whom are human.

Suddenly a flock of birds shoot up the river. I peer closely as they look somewhat out of place - seabirds! These seagulls and terns are chasing the fish that have been flushed upstream in the rain-fed tides. I stop and watch for a while enveloped in the sight of this all-engrossing wild.

It is my contention that connecting with wild nature even in the midst of the urban naturescape awakens and animates that part of ourselves which lies dormant in our busy city-driven lives. I refer to this re-awakened self as the ‘wild self’. Seeking the wild in the outdoors, away from the machinations of everyday life, we come into contact with the instinctual wild within ourselves. I am not advocating that we spend all our time in this wild state, however I am suggesting that the wild be reclaimed as a sacred place to be and way to act.

But Western culture has a suspicion of wild things, a fear of the wild which equates to a fear of the unknown, and by extension, to a fear of the other - as if connecting to the wild will somehow taint us, or cause us to lose control and go ‘feral’ – incidentally the pejorative term used by the media for activists campaigning to preserve wild places.

There is also a perception that links the wild with what is bad and dangerous. Going wild is associated with anger and rage, with a loss of control, getting drunk and even with violence. but I would argue that these attributes are aspects of human nature rather than simply aspects of the wild.

The term ‘wild’ is generally defined in two main ways - either as an aspect of the natural world still in its ‘original’ state such as wild animals or self-regulating ecosystems, or as a quality perceived to be in opposition to culture and order (Snyder, 1990). Here the wild refers to what is untamed, uncultivated, disordered, unruly, lawless and uncivilized. In other words, the wild becomes a subversive force outside the control of the social order. This is also part of its attraction. The wild is a place of resistance.

Connecting with the wild involves shifting out of ‘ordinary’ consciousness and coming into contact with the deeper recesses of our being and with qualities we tend to neglect or repress in our daily lives – the sense of passion, playfulness, adventure and creativity. It is a rewarding experience especially ‘when our own wildness is awakened by the wildness of nature’ (Clinebell, 1996:34). Once nature has woven its magic spell we return again and again to be filled, nurtured and nourished for this is the way of the wild.

The delicious Native American author Linda Hogan (1995) puts it this way:

'You know these moments you have when you enter a silence that’s still and complete and peaceful? That’s the source, the place where everything comes from. In that space, you know everything is connected, that there’s an ecology of everything. In that place it is possible for people to have a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in their way of being and living in the world' (quoted in Jensen, 1995:3).

Linda Hogan describes an experience that parallels my own: being in nature is a two-way process where outer bodily connection and inner reflection merge with the rhythm of the natural world. The wondrous ecophilosopher David Abram (1996:69) argues that it is only through a ‘rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us’ that we will achieve a change of heart about our relationship with the earth. Perhaps this is what the 19th century nature writer Henry David Thoreau meant when he said: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’.

Abram D, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, New York, Vintage Books.
Clinebell H, 1996, Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, Minneapolis, Fortress Press.
Jensen D, 1995, Listening to the Land. Conversations about Nature, Culture and Eros, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books.
Snyder G, 1990, The Practice of the Wild, Berkeley, North Point Press.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Refreshing. Vital. Rain.

Rain. Falling. Thick. Luscious. Wet. A wonderfully welcome and most refreshing change. As I walk the trail I tingle with excitement. The birds are fluffing up their feathers; the trees look renewed; the mud underneath my feet squwelches and I sink into the once (just a day ago) hard earth.

Mud. Rain. Water. Glorious.

The colours of the river are subdued but luminous. A spectrum of greys. Dark greens. Olive browns. Dulled coppery tans. The deep marooney plum of the new growth. Emeraldish grasses. Black and white birds. Magpies. Mudlarks. Butcher birds. Willie wagails. Foraging with joy.

It's certainly not the case, to use the words of the old song, of 'Grey skies are gonna clear up, Put on a happy face'. The coming of the rain puts a happy face on the other trail visitors and on the river itself. 'It's great,' they say, 'I like this sort of rain.' Drizzly rain. Soaking rain. Happy rain.

There is new life protruding everywhere I look. The leaves are dancing with delight. Gone is their droopy countenance, now they gleam with renewed vigour. The river sparks with renewed vitality, its smile lighting up the valley and my heart.

Mary Oliver, the wonderful poet, writes so evocatively about the rain and her relationship with it, that I will let her words speak the feelings that I feel.

Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me
Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.
Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.
The tree was a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,
and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
at which moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain –
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.